Posts from February 2017
February 1st, 2017
The first day of February dawns crisp and bright and cold here in Boston, with new-fallen snow still white and undefiled on the ground and lining every tree-branch. It’s the very picture of a new, clean page – what better setting for a new issue of my beloved Open Letters Monthly?
We have a lovely issue this month, a compact thing of a dozen pieces arranged along our usual lines: the top bulk of the Table of Contents devoted to new reviews, essays, columns, and poems, with a smattering of reprinted gems from our enormous back-catalog to round things out. And this month the pickings are sinfully rich:
In “The Disgraceful Lowlands of Writing,” Robert Minto writes about Reiner Stach’s magnificent now-completed three-volume biography of Franz Kafka, calling it a masterpiece that belongs on the same shelf as Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James, or Hermione Lee’s of Virginia Woolf, or Joseph Frank’s of Dostoevsky.
Editor Justin Hickey reviews Skunks Dance, a surreal new YA novel from Remora House by St. John Karp, and he finds the book – with its hidden corpses, headless statues, rare comics – “filthy, fractious, and gonzo” … but also, underneath the stylized zaniness, genuinely something more.
Editor Zach Rabiroff looks back into history, reviewing Jennifer Roberts’ The Plague of War, about the war that erupted between the Spartans and the Athenians – “the yin and yang of Greek society, each representing the antithesis of the other” – for control of the ancient Greek world. And since it was a time when the fate of nations could turn on the words of self-serving demagogues, it’s just possible that some contemporary resonances creep in.
Paul Goldberg’s bitingly surreal and memorable historical novel The Yid is the subject of a terrific review by A. E. Smith, who sifts through the book’s multiple layers of narrative centering on a small group of aging Jews in Stalinist Russia who are more than they seem. Smith calls the novel “a highly subversive consideration of both the nature of that Soviet enterprise and of the role of Jews in building and sustaining it.”
Another historical novel, The Kid by Ron Hansen (author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), deals with one of the most storied of Americans: Billy the Kid. In his review, Jeff P. Jones (himself the author of the historical novel Love Give Us One Death: Bonnie and Clyde in the Last Days) finds that Hansen “revels in humanizing his subject while managing, remarkably, to preserve Billy’s fundamentally inscrutable nature.”
Our indefatigable mystery maven Irma Heldman turns her attention to The Death of Kings, the latest in the excellent John Madden series by Rennie Airth. Irma is impressed by the series (as a shiver of relief runs through the whodunnit department of Viking Press) and revisits the run of its novels in order to bring readers up to speed for this latest installment.
And there’s so much more! Yours truly continues his “Year with the Tudors II” with a look at Tracy Borman’s new book The Private Lives of the Tudors, and OLM‘s redoubtable poetry editor Maureen Thorson presents the issue’s two poems, “5 June 2016/Birmingham” by Jessica Smith and “back-door typical” by Theodora Danylevich. And from our archives we reprint three classics: Joanna Scutts on Joe Sacco’s The Great War, Sam Sacks on Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind, and John Cotter on Paul Auster’s memoir Winter Journal.
January 12th, 2017
I couldn’t help but be charmed by the long essay by Joseph Epstein in last week’s Weekly Standard, despite its barrage of annoying ticks and quirks. The piece is called “Hitting Eighty,” and it’s the latest (and – sad thought – the last?) in what turns out to be a little series of pieces Epstein has written about his own aging. He’s a marvelously companionable writer most of the time, even when navigating a subject like this one, which is bound to make just about anybody sound like an egotistical prig.
Epstein has never needed much help in that department, mainly owing to his Mencken-style habit of industriously mining the nearest Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and then trying, without any success ever, to pass it off as a feat of offhanded oh-can’t-everybody-do-it ease. Try to imagine what, for instance, a paragraph like this one would have looked like if you’d shaken its author awake at 4 in the morning to write it:
I’ll accept the “old” part. One of the dangers of being old – for the moment setting death aside – is that one tends to overvalue the past. Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, writes: “Men do always, but not always with reason, commend the past and condemn the present … [and] extol the days when they remember their youth to have been spent.” Santayana holds that the reason the old have nothing but foreboding about the future is that they cannot imagine a world that is any good without their being in it. The temptation, when among contemporaries, is to lapse into what I call crank, in which everything in the past turns out to have been superior to anything in the present. Not true, of course, but oddly pleasant to indulge – even though one knows, as Noel Coward, who later in his life himself indulged in crank, had it, “There is no future in the past.”
But when he’s not quoting Santayana, Epstein is time and again insightful on the many little victories and many, many more little defeats of reaching what even the most generous of friends would have to call old age. He tells us that he’s been very lucky in the lottery of general health, and his body of work in the last decade attests to the fact that his literary powers aren’t yet suffering with time. He mentions that he can still pull his pants on while standing up, a great little detail that will seem utterly banal to anybody, say, under 30 but that will resonate just a bit with his dwindling target demographic. He also mentions one of the nice fringe benefits of visible old age: the freedom to compliment young people on their appearance without immediately being the subject of a police inquiry.
In fact, only one passage in the essay gave me pause:
As for books, I mentioned to someone the other day that I was slowly reading my way through Theodor Mommsen’s majestic four-volume History of Rome. “You don’t read any crappy books, do you?” he said. With the grave yawning, I replied, why would I? As a literary man, I used to make an effort to keep up with contemporary novels and poetry, but no longer feel it worth the effort. No more 500- and 600-page novels for me written by guys whose first name is Jonathan. I have given the current batch of English novelists – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – a fair enough shot to realize I need read no more of them; their novels never spoke to me, and are less likely than ever to do so now. I glimpse poems in the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and in the few literary quarterlies to which I still subscribe; but none stick in the mind, and poor poetry itself has come to see little more than an intramural sport, restricted in interest largely to those people who continue to write the stuff.
Not only is this, as mentioned, wincingly self-serving (You don’t read any crappy books, do you? Well, do you?), but it’s also genuinely a little alarming. A life-long reader and book-reviewer who can write such a passage has made a great many more concessions to the Grim Reaper than he’s willing to admit, maybe even to himself. No longer worth the effort? When the whole literary life is comprised of just that effort? As I said: alarming.
Fortunately, elsewhere in the Penny Press I was able to find an old duffer firing away on all cylinders, although in this case it was a very old duffer, not quite firing away as echoing the cannon-shot of yesteryear. The mighty TLS reprinted a sparkling piece written by Anthony Burgess back in 1972 in which he writes delightfully about that same aspect of the literary life, the omnipresence of reviews, both the reading of them and the writing of them. For all that I might disagree with him on this and every other subject, I could read Burgess on reviewing until the cows come home:
But of ordinary reviews – those one finds in the Sundays or weeklies – it is hard to say anything good. Even when they praise, they cannot resist cleverness at the expense of the reviewed: they approve, but from a height: they imply that their own prescription for a good piece of writing seems to have been fulfilled: this patient is fit enough, but, of course, he will have to watch his health. When they dispraise, they neither damage the sale of the book – whose quality the reader must find out for himself anyway – nor help the writer to reform his fault. Usually the writer knows far better than the reviewer what his faults are, and if he could get rid of them he would.
Of course he can’t raise the subject without going over yet again the trouble he got into when he reviewed one of his own books under a pen-name, but I’d rather have such artful dodging any day of the week from a dead author than a pallid “I need read no more of them” from a living one.
November 29th, 2016
Self-preservation these days requires not only skipping wholesale the front sections of all the political magazines to which I subscribe but also physically tearing them off their staples and discarding them, so that not even a stray glance falls on their appalling content. I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks now and face an unbroken future of continuing to do it, but naturally, such a precaution left me unprepared to encounter quite such an iceberg of irritation as I did when reading the back half of the most recent Nation.
In particular, a round-up review called “Criticism in the Twilight” by somebody named Nicholas Dames, writing about three books, The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood, Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott, and Against Everything by Mark Greif. The first two of those are collections of book reviews and the third, Against Everything, is a collection of n + 1 pointless windbagging on various random topics. But even so, the gambit Dames chose in order to kick off his review deals with the life – and death – of public literary criticism
If you think that sounds gruesome, you’re not wrong. His opening paragraph is every bit as bad as you might expect from somebody who’s going to waste your time laying out a case that once upon a time, great critics like Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, and Pauline Kael rose above the limitations of the sub-genre (“They observe the canonical, but they publish in pages that wilt. They write from a position of developed taste, but they also have to turn around pieces on deadline,” etc.) and achieved a kind of lit-crit immortality the very root conditions of which have disappeared today:
What venues can play host to a critical sensibility that is both distinctive and imitable? What institution can afford to supply the cultural critic with a steady income and a stable intellectual home? These are embarrassing questions to ask. It is unlikely that such a figure would emerge today from print journalism, as the walls close in on the handful of venues that still bother with criticism at all. It is even less likely that the Internet, each corner of which is constantly undergoing mitosis, can nurture a voice with the necessary kind of consistency and economic stability. Least likely of all is the university, which is presently too engaged in a struggle for legitimacy to speak for a public … Any setting that might give the critic a connection to genuine, generalizable experience is virtually out of reach.
To which, naturally, Dames appends “Or so it seems.” “Or so it seems” and its weasling ilk are the schoolhouse hall passes of the literary world, endorsed by the principal, proof against any infractions, and either envied by the fellow students who want one for themselves or hated by the fellow students who think the whole concept is a bullying scam. “Or so it seems” lets a writer spew any kind of stem-winding nonsense for the first 200 words of a thousand-word piece, without even much thinking about those words, let alone taking responsibility for them.
And sure enough, Dames then goes on to talk about things that seem like flat refutations of his opening spiel, most notably the profusion of cultural criticism that’s existed every since the Internet came of age. But it quickly becomes obvious that the thing he’s complaining about isn’t the lack of critics – it’s the lack of critics in Armonk, and the lack of readers taking the Metro North into the city from White Plains every morning on their way to the investment firm with the day’s Arts section folded under their arm. “Once,” he writes, “critics like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael commanded the attention of a large audience and were expected to shape and challenge a still roughly homogeneous public opinion.”
Despite the obvious fact that he wasn’t quite engaged enough in struggling for legitimacy to refrain from sharing his insights, (maybe he had an idle weekend), Nicholas Dames is himself an academic, a professor at Columbia no less, and after reading his little opening outcry, this is entirely believable. But even so, it takes an academic with a particular gift for Ivory-tower innocence to believe there was ever a time when cultural Titans like Trilling, Sontag, and Kael sat at their high desks dispensing wisdom to a listening, engaged (and we can guess a couple of the other things that might be meant by that “homogeneous”) readership. There wasn’t ever such a time. Nor was there ever a time – in American history, anyway – when book-critics were serenely pondering the canon instead of chasing after things like Avengers: Age of Ultron on tight deadline for peanuts in the ephemeral pages of the Penny Press. Dames is very precisely and very cannily confusing his terms in order to push his nonsensical, contradictory old-fogie points about “debased” criticism conducted in the twilight. It’s a bit silly to talk about the death-from-irrelevance of deadline criticism in 2016, while surrounded every day by examples of it and while reviewing two collections of it for the Books section of a national magazine with a circulation of 100,000.
Silly, but hey – The Nation pays. It wilts, but it pays.
October 19th, 2016
As I’ve readily admitted in the past, the lad-mags for which I have something of a pronounced sweet-tooth aren’t really the places you go if you’re looking for literary coverage. It’s true that some of them pay their freelancers well, so in the rear pages of many an issue, you can often find writing that you don’t want to miss. But that writing will almost never be about books (and that’s often a good thing – I’ve lost count of the number of “25 Books Everybody Should Read” lists with no entries by the little ladies). The editors of these magazines love to tout the well-balanced life, so they sometimes feel compelled to pop in little features about how a self-respecting dude-bro should work in a little reading in between the four-figure shoe budget and the gym squats, but the features usually have a hit-and-run quality to them.
Take, as the latest instance, the November issue of Men’s Fitness. It’s got a bald no-neck thug on the cover, and it’s got a full-page ad for the Amazon Kindle that made me want to push somebody off a rock wall worse than I’ve ever wanted that in my life, and sure enough, there was a little factoid article about reading. It was written by James Rosenthal, and it read in its entirety:
Getting your nose out of the gossipy websites, clicking off all the streaming screens and picking up a book for just 30 minutes a day can help you live longer. Yale researchers surveyed general data (income, education, health) on 3,600 subjects, ages 50 or over, who’d participated in a previous study. They looked at how often the subjects read books, periodicals, or nothing at all. Over the course of the study, researchers found, people who read books more than 3 ½ hours a week had a 23% decrease in morality compared with those who didn’t read at all. Those who averaged 3 ½ hours of book reading had a 17% lower risk. In all, book readers lived 23 months longer than their non-reading counterparts. Interestingly, newspaper and periodical readers had an 11% drop in mortality risk – but only if they read at least seven hours a week. Scientists speculate this may be because books are longer and more complex plots, so they require more brain power than periodicals (not counting the one you’re holding, of course). So finish this up, then go grab yourself a hardcover.
These kinds of name-checks always prompt conflicting responses in me. On the one hand, I’m glad to see the periodical bros getting exposed to anything more complex than cross-training and the latest oatmeal trend. But on the other hand, the diffident, embarrassed tone the writers take is depressingly confusing. I mean, just look at those stats from Yale: reading books decreases mortality by an enormous chunk. Even on the outside chance that there’s any validity to anything Rosenthal quotes, why wouldn’t those figures stop Men’s Fitness readers in their tracks? Nothing else in the November issue – or any other issue – comes anywhere close to promising a 23% decrease in mortality, and yet is this little squib the headline of the issue? Is it anything perusing dude-bros will pause over for more than a second or two?
It’s a shame, in balance, and this time – as always – I finish my own two-second perusal hoping for a Books issue of a lad-mag, just once.
September 23rd, 2016
Like plenty of other people (perhaps particularly other beagle-fanciers), I loved Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Dish in most of its various incarnations over the years, and I read it eagerly even when, as was very often the case, I disagreed with the author. I was disappointed when he rather ostentatiously announced his retirement from blogging last year, so I was naturally interested when I saw that he commanded the cover article spot of the September 19 issue of New York magazine, a piece called “I Used to Be a Human Being.” It went into the piece eagerly.
And almost instantly regretted it, and then kept on regretting it throughout the length of the piece. Instead of reading the piece I’d hoped for, in which Sullivan looked back on his whirlwind years masterminding The Dish, I realized pretty quickly I was reading a piece in which Sullivan recounts his struggles with the Devil.
He’s visiting a religious retreat that’s geared to wean people from their dependence on electronic stimulation. Postulants surrender their cellphones and meditate their way through the cold turkey withdrawal symptoms to a state of inner peace. They’re slowly, patiently desensitized until they reach the point where they can ignore all the “distractions” of modern technology and concentrate again on not concentrating, on simply breathing, on simply being.
Those distractions were stronger for Sullivan than for most people, as he writes in typically vivid prose:
But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success – in big and beautiful data – that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age. I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.
And he claims that all of this extracted a heavy cost: lethargy, atrophied muscles, “four bronchial infections in 12 months” and a general feeling of disconnection from the world. Sullivan lists all the usual suspects: Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Tinder (that one crops up regularly), combines them with the round-the-clock needs of running The Dish, and paints a dire picture of the results:
Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time.
Like all people who convince themselves they’re addicts, Sullivan promptly does two things: he declares that he had no control over his addiction – and that none of us do: “When provided a constant source of information and news and gossip about each other – routed through our social networks – we are close to helpless” – and he turns around and heaps scorn on the Promised Land now that he’s sure he himself doesn’t want to live there anymore. He describes a great, frantic blight ruled by shadowy overlords:
We absorb this “content” (as writing or video or photography is now called) no longer primarily by buying a magazine or paper, by bookmarking our favorite website, or by actively choosing to read or watch. We are instead guided to these info-nuggets by myriad little interruptions on social media, all cascading at us with individually tailored relevance and accuracy. Do not flatter yourself in thinking that you have much control over which temptations you click on. Silicon Valley’s technologists and their ever-perfecting algorithms have discovered the form of bait that will have you jumping like a witless minnow.
It’s preposterous, of course, but the whole thing is preposterous. Phony screeds like this one are zero-sum games that practically write themselves, and it’s disappointing that Sullivan doesn’t bother to rise above the formula (there are potted blocks of exposition about Internet growth, the religious life, and, Gawd help us, the invention of the printing press). He makes mechanical references to Thoreau and to comedian Louis C.K.’s idiotic rant on a late-night TV show, talks about how when you take a subway ride these days, everybody’s attention is glued to their glowing little screens, gets in some references to the pretty blue sky … all of it so by-the-numbers that I found myself just waiting for the tell-tale signs of outright hypocrisy. Those signs are always the same: the writer elevates the tedium and waste of the Good Olde Days into some kind of Golden Age when people really did things and really paid attention. “Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and ‘wasted’ time in the achievement of practical goals,” he writes. “But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes from accomplishing daily tasks well …” And so on.
There was no satisfaction in wasting an hour trying to find that particular used bookshop in a city where you’ve never been. There was no satisfaction in being completely stranded if your car has a flat tired on a side road at night. There was no pride of workmanship in crawl-typing through carbon papers in order to get four pages of clean copy. All of that is nonsense, and Sullivan knows it’s nonsense (the piece ends as they all do, with him inching back, with hand-waving reluctance, to the world of electronic ‘distractions’). He can go to as many ostentatious yuppie “retreats” as he wants, but he wouldn’t go back again to missing important phone calls or being out of touch with his loved ones – or getting lost, ever – if his life depended on it. He’s cashing a New York paycheck by decrying something he never stopped using and praising things that did nothing but irritate him when they were the only games in town. All of it is just the click-bait harrumphing of a middle-aged man aping an old man.
Witless minnows? Nobody made Sullivan click on anything. Nobody made him abandon his self-control in such a ridiculous, adolescent way. Nobody made him hunch over his computer without taking breaks to walk, or talk, or fight off bronchitis. And likewise nobody made him walk away from it all, as mystifying as that decision was. Through talent and skill and a great deal of hard work, he built The Dish into something truly remarkable; if he needed time off from it in order to unwind, he should have booked a cruise or hiked the Appalachian Trail or showed a little more creative commitment to to Tinder. He’d have come back refreshed to the job he rightly celebrates as having been thrilling and satisfying … and the rest of us would have been spared Pollyanna bull crap like “I Used To Be a Human Being.”
August 10th, 2016
I clearly wasn’t the only reader of the mighty TLS who was disappointed by Julian Baggini’s cover article about the ethics of eating animals! I went into the piece with high hopes, which in retrospect I see now was a bit foolish, and Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals felt the same way, writing a letter of objection with a rousing finish:
It is invariably our own often embarrassingly supremacist species that is unaware of what goes on in other animals’ minds. While we send probes into space to search for intelligent forms of life, we are oblivious to the ones all around us, right here on Earth and in Earth’s oceans. Far from making it “difficult” to grapple with the “complex” issue of not eating the other bright sparks in our sphere of interaction, as Baggini posits, it’s actually not only an obligation but also terribly easy to to learn to relate to those whose misfortune it was to end up on humans’ plates; to recognize that when wearing fur or leather, one is in another’s skin; and to stop pretending that mice and monkeys are test tubes with whiskers. The complexity, as amply demonstrated in the books Baggini reviewed, lies in having to craft arguments to avoid the inconvenience of taking that simple decision to stop eating animals. To say that taking animals’ lives is not problematic because once they are dead they feel neither suffering nor loss, as easily applies to snuffing out people you might run into on the street. The adage “No harm, no foul” is shown to be phoney baloney.
And that was just to start things off – the rest of the issue was typically fantastic. Thomas Meaney turned in a tough but ultimately favorable review of Thomas Laqueur’s richly rewarding The Work of the Dead; Timothy Tackett approved of John Hardman’s excellent The Life of Louis XVI, an although the requisite Victorian-themed review wasn’t written by Rohan Maitzen (as all TLS Victorian-themed reviews rightfully should be), it was nevertheless passably readable.
But the highlight of the issue was a blast from the past: a 1982 Kingsley Amis review of John Gardner’s James Bond pastiche novel For Special Services. Amis had a long association with the Bond industry, and he confesses that history right up front – and then beautifully brings the hammer down on the poor book under review:
Quite likely it ill becomes a man placed as I am to say that, whereas its predecessor was bad enough ty any reasonable standard, the present offering is an unrelieved disaster all the way from the aptly forgettable title to the photograph of the author – surely an unflattering likeness – on the back of the jacket. If so that is just my bad luck. On the other hand, perhaps I can claim the privilege of at least a momentary venting of indignation at the disrepute into which this publication brings the name and works of Ian Fleming. Let me get something like that said before I have to start being funny and clever and risk letting the thing escape through underkill.
He goes on to roast the book over an open fire in paragraph after delightful paragraph, often with hilariously-done asides like when he mentions the fate of one of the book’s villains:
Nobody really cares when she gets thrown among the pythons on the bayou. Well, there are pythons on this bayou.
It’s an acid-etched performance, one that left me desperately wishing for a thousand-page collection of the Kingsley Amis deadline-prose and book reviews. Maybe someday …
May 20th, 2016
I’ve come to expect jaw-dropping moments in paleo-conservative magazines like The Weekly Standard, magazines that mistake blind cultural atavism for actual conservatism and end up actively praising a wide array of things any 1960 conservative would have considered appalling. But every so often, I stumble across a true whopper neatly folded into something as seemingly innocuous as a book review, and that happened this week.
I was reading the book reviews in the May 23rd issue when I came to one written by a reviewer with the Dickensian name of Barton Swaim. The piece was a review of The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge, a study of the theology and literary history of the central event in Christian religion. I raised an eyebrow when Swaim referred to Rutledge’s prose as “winsome” – I’d bet a whole bunch of bananas that Swaim would never use such a word to describe the prose of a man, but I’ve been reading this kind of magazine for a long time … their casual institutional racism and sexism doesn’t really slow me down much anymore. I had no idea the main show was coming up.
Swaim goes on to characterize the nature of modern academic Biblical exegesis in fairly accurate terms, recounting how that exegesis studies the history and provenance of documents and literary traditions and tends to do so in non-theological terms. That is, miracle stories about cured lepers and wrestling angels are to be studied as cultural artifacts rather than eyewitness accounts – and that eyewitness accounts purporting to see such things are, in the mildest reading, simply incorrect.
But then, astonishingly, Swaim indulges in a digression that makes it clear he’s tired of such scholarly pussy-footing:
On may approve or disapprove of that premise, and critical scholars themselves have found ways to treat texts as in some sense “sacred” without treating them as inerrant or even as divine revelation. But that has long been the de facto governing assumption behind critical exegesis of biblical texts. The trouble is that, from any point of view, it’s boring. The biblical writings purport to tell us what God is like and how man can know him. All critical scholars are ever going to tell us is who wrote (or didn’t write) which books and what sort of half-baked primitive ideas underlay their composition. That may be fine for desiccated scholarly monographs, but it will not sustain anyone’s faith or motivate anyone to works of mercy.
He makes it clear that he’s very grateful for the “growing number of liberal scholars” who are insisting on “interpreting biblical texts on those texts’ own terms” – meaning, on the terms of those texts being true and divinely-inspired dictations from a supernatural being. He’s happy for the growing number of scholars who are dispensing with the writing of “desiccated scholarly monographs” that merely chase down trivia about textual composition and literary influence and instead getting down to the real business of writing about just exactly how the demigod son of Yahweh took on mortal flesh and was crucified in accordance with ancient prophecy. Because come on – deep down, we all KNOW it really happened, right? Interpreting the these 2000-year-old Middle Eastern texts any other way would be boring, right?
Jaw-dropping, as I mentioned. Barton Swaim (and maybe the winsome Fleming Rutledge? The review doesn’t make it completely clear, and alas, I haven’t read the book) would really appreciate it if Biblical scholars would stop messing around writing “desiccated” studies that treat the Bible as just another ancient text – after all, the purpose of such scholarship isn’t to inquire into the past, it’s to sustain everybody’s religious faith.
It took me a while to realize I’d really read this kind of 15th-century stupid dogmatism in a 21st century publication, and then I was mainly just embarrassed for Fleming Rutledge. For myself, I have no desire whatsoever to go back to the ages when you could only write about the Bible by first fearfully professing your personal belief in the truth of all its fairy tales. Give me boring old responsible scholarship any day.
April 28th, 2016
As I’ve noted in the past here at Stevereads, I take a peculiar interest in the slight but often fascinating book-coverage you can find in the “lad mags” like Esquire or Men’s Journal or GQ. It’s always strange to me, the efforts the editors of these magazines (arrogant SOBs almost to a man) to find some way, any way, to make books feel interesting or relevant to their target demographic of swaggering, over-monied, pea-brained 20-something business drones. Magazines like Esquire and GQ know that demographic’s stupidity and biddability to the last decimal place, which is why these are some of the only major magazines still in circulation in the West that feature both embarrassing objectification of women and page after page of adds for cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco.
Books are always going to be a strange element to add to such a brainless bro-centric mess, so I girded myself when I recently encountered a short feature in Esquire called “The New Books for Men” by Benjamin Percy, an egregiously overpraised young writer who here comes up with a list of books that have spoken to him in various ways as he’s ripened into the wise old guy he is today (according to Wikipedia, Percy is well shy of his 40th birthday). I went in hoping for one person’s account of what reading has meant to him, but Percy takes hardly any time before he’s made things a good deal more ponderous than that:
The older I get, the more I read to upset and challenge the man I’ve actually become. Reading is now less aspirational and more instructional. I cracked open Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at eactly the right time: the year my son almost died … The Road may take place in a postapocalyptic wasteland, but ultimately it’s a story about fathers and sons, about the terror of keeping your children safe from harm and teaching them to protect themselves in a world that sometimes seems bent on ruining them. The book helped me better understand and manage my own fears and sense of responsibility.
It should almost be needless to say that going to novels for “instructional” reasons is fundamentally wrong-headed. It reduces not only the novel but the novel’s readers. What, after all, according to Percy’s view here, happens to the readers who come to (sorry, “crack open,” like a brewski) The Road without having their young sons in the hospital? (Not even delving into the fact that The Road can somehow be enjoyed on a visceral level even by women – in the view Percy puts forward in this piece, women not only don’t read but can’t read) Percy goes through a list of books in a similar vein, each one named in conjunction with some nuts-and-bolts life lesson to which it can give operating instructions. Every work named (all popularly well-regarded; the list of titles alone pretty clearly hints that Percy doesn’t himself read books, ever, if he can help it) is given a narrow, one-topic point, a precise life-problem it can solve once its bro-reader picks it up, gropes it open, and begins mouthing its words to himself. And all of it is designed not as an end in itself but rather as one more notch on the money-clip of the World’s Most Interesting Man:
You look back on your life and the books you’ve read and you know you’re better off for having a large and varied and sometimes uncomfortable appetite for experience, for having lived widely, strenuously. Getting upset, leaving behind what’s familiar: That’s the point. The most interesting guy at the party isn’t the one who only surrounds himself with friends.
Whenever I come across a short piece like this in a lad-mag, I always feel a split reaction: on the one hand, I’m happy to see any mention of books in pages full of ads for $85,000 wrist watches and “recreational” products with a hundred-year record of causing lung cancer. But on the other hand, it’s irritating to see books and reading so smugly simplified – here’s how this Tolstoy guy helped me to play some catch with my dad – it’s the intellectual equivalent of strip-mining, and it’s depressing to think of all the young money-bros out there who’ll encounter Percy’s article and think reading William Styron or T. H. White is some kind of highbrow close equivalent to figuring out a sheet of IKEA instructions; “I’ve got a boss who’s absolutely obsessed with our quarterly reports … I better crack open this “Moby-Dick” book …”
But I’ll hold out a bit of stubborn hope anyway. Maybe next month’s issue of Outside …
April 3rd, 2016
As I’ve mentioned before here at Stevereads, it’s always a pleasure for me to see a glossy square-bound lad-mag divert from quick-ab workouts and $35,000 wristwatches to talk about some of the less venal elements of what goes into making a well-rounded person. The most vulnerable of those elements is of course the gentle art of reading, so it’s usually a distinct treat when a magazine like Esquire or Men’s Journal runs a short piece on the added value that your average bro can get from your above-average book.
The latest GQ (the one with a picture of a very old Clint Eastwood on the cover) has just such a feature: “21 Brilliant Books You’ve Never Heard Of (Championed by 21 Writers You Have).” Naturally, such a feature isn’t really going to present me with 21 books I’ve never heard of, but the title promises some off-the-beaten-path choices, and the feature delivers.
We get Ben Fountain praising Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, for instance, and we get Hanya Yanagihara recommending, oddly and delightfully, My Abandonment by Peter Rock. Wells Tower calls G. B. Edwards’ The Book of Ebenezer Le Page “a work of seaweed, heart, and waves that break on granite” (true enough, especially in how it reflects the thing’s readability). TC Boyle puts forward Denis Johnson’s great slim novel Fiskadoro, and A. O. Scott, bless his hitherto-inconspicuous heart, praises Mary McCarthy’s great novel The Groves of Academe while not actually talking about it all, and Marlon James singles out Russell Hoban’s masterpiece Riddley Walker (and pays the simple readerly respect we all must pay: “if it wasn’t for Salman Rushdie, I would never have heard of it”).
It’s true that the otherwise-trustworthy Emma Straub recommends the dreadful Stoner by John Williams, but we also get some of our best working novelists making cases for books they think are underappreciated: George Saunders writes about American Youth by Phil LaMarche, Junot Diaz praises The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel Delany, and the great Adam Johnson recommends Robert O’Connor’s terrific novel Buffalo Soldiers.
In fact, there was hardly any fault to lay at the door of the feature’s editors, who assembled a very thought-provoking mixture of lesser-known books and interesting recommenders. No, the fault came from the emphysema sandwich-buns that encased the feature: the last page of the magazine before the feature started and the first page after it ended – the absolutely inescapable brackets of the thing – were both full-page color ads for tobacco products, just exactly like this was a 1956 issue of GQ rather than a 2016 issue. One of the ads was for chewing tobacco, and the other was for super-sexy cigarettes, and in both cases, there were federally-mandated warning boxes telling readers that chewing tobacco isn’t a “safe” alternative to smoking, and that cigarettes contain elevated levels of carbon monoxide. No mention made of the fact that in studies not heavily subsidized by the tobacco industry, the data shows that fully 100% of idiots who use chewing tobacco develop tooth-rot and mouth cancer, and that fully 100% of idiots who smoke develop emphysema and lung cancer. No exceptions, unless the tobacco industry is paying for them outright. The ads instead offer only the very mildest finger-shaking admonitions – X isn’t safe, Y contains carbon monoxide – instead of This product will give you cancer.
And just as an editorial team was responsible for the quality of that “21 Brilliant Books” feature, so too is there responsibility for the ads that bracketed it: Jim Nelson is the Editor-in-Chief of GQ, which means that in order for those ads – extolling the cool-factor of weaponized tobacco, for Christ’s sake, in 2016, for Christ’s sake, when the science of how absolutely lethal this crap is has been settled for seventy years – to appear in the magazine, he either had to approve of them or else not quit his job because of them. So either Editor-in-Chief Jim Nelson wants GQ readers to get addicted to carcinogens in order to keep his ad-revenues flowing, or he’s too spineless to take a principled stand against it.
Either is despicable, and especially so in this case because there’s already a long-cultivated association (carefully encouraged by the tobacco industry) between being a writer and ingesting vast amounts of carcinogens. Thanks to the placement of these ads, that association will only be strengthened in the minds of the biddable young twentysomething men who are such a key component of GQ‘s audience. I’ll just have to hope that the ones who are smart enough to want to read some of these books are also smart enough to avoid the evil fate to which Jim Nelson wants to condemn them.
February 28th, 2016
Impossible for me to pass over Michael Dirda’s “Freelance” column from last week’s TLS, and likewise impossible for me not to respond. Dirda uses the little space this time to reflect on his long stint as an editor at the legendary Washington Post Book World, and in his typical fashion, he manages to build enormous amounts of depth and complexity into a very small space. This “Freelance” piece not only reads like an autobiography but very much makes this reader want to read such a book.
Dirda briefly looks at the omnivorous nature of his tenure’s outlook on the Republic of Letters:
I believed, too, that that literature included much of what was then dismissed as “genre” trash … Did anyone write better dialogue than George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard? Weren’t Charles Portis’s True Grit, James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, and John Crowley’s Little Big among the best American novels of our time? J. G. Ballard and Angela Carter were arguably Britain’s most remarkable short-story writers; Ursula Le Guin was surely at least as important as Susan Sontag.
And he gives a look into the parameters of his actual job:
Still, I was mainly an editor, responsible for assigning half-a-dozen new titles each week, as well as monthly columns devoted to science fiction, mysteries and children’s books. Here, I wanted what all editors want – lively copy. Bernard Shaw once said that he could make even the most tired businessman read his music reviews. Over time, Book World published many really terrific pieces, often by superstars away from their usual playing field.
This is characteristically but inaccurately humble, and you can see it in the invisible bridge from the penultimate line to the last line. Shaw was indeed fond of making that quip about tired businessmen, but we go straight from that to what Book World, as some sort of Borg-like collective, published – the missing thing is Dirda himself. Shaw might have bragged about entertaining tired businessmen by main force, but the original drafts of many of his music reviews – the pages he submitted to The Star in the first place – were often unbearably tail-chasing and almost invariably too long. They wouldn’t have reached those tired businessmen if they hadn’t been helped into better shape by Shaw’s tough-minded Irish editor, a better critic than Shaw could ever dream of being but without his gift for self-promotion. The point being: those really terrific pieces Book World ran during Dirda’s tenure didn’t simply appear out of thin air. He set the tone, and, as hifalutin’ as it might sound, he provided the vision. And that’s no easy thing to do issue after issue for years on end. As a smart historian wrote almost a century ago, “It is astonishing how easily an otherwise respectable editor or biographer can get himself into a state of complete intellectual dishonesty.” The way is inviting, and Dirda never took it.
His short “Freelance” piece shades into somewhat melancholy tones, which surprised me even for this mostly-melancholy writer. And of course I pricked up my ears when he got to the nub of it:
Not that I’d recommend freelance writing about books as a sensible career path. In many ways, it’s a boring life. You read, scribble, turn away in disgust from what you’ve written, scribble again, send in your review or essay, wait, revise the edited copy, wait some more. When the piece finally appears, no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake. You really have to love books to keep on with this, week after week.
This puzzled me, and I have to think Dirda wrote it on a glum day. He alludes to the entire print Book World run under his tenure being trundled to storage facility somewhere, to molder in the darkness unconsulted, and he reflects that at least he has his memories to console him. But he can lay claim to a good deal more than happy memories and an old archive mothballed somewhere. I know for a fact that his Book World brought readers like me a great deal of pleasure throughout its entire run, and that’s no small accomplishment. It’s not true at all that “no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake” – readers noticed the great lineup of reviews Dirda orchestrated so often and so well. Those review-reading pleasures might be evanescent, but they were no less real for being so.
And that’s the rightful motivation for doing it, as Dirda must know (I, for one, don’t believe for a second his implication that his main motivation for writing his book reviews these days is a steady paycheck). A well-done book review can challenge complacency, fill in gaps of learning, broaden associations, and most of all, entertain. Who cares if those reviews aren’t carved in marble? Who cares if they end up moldering in a dark, forgotten archive somewhere in Plattsburgh? The sheer fun of the conversation, of both entertaining and being entertained, is plenty justification for taking up the practice of book reviewing, surely? Boring? Not a minute of it!